Astonished and Amazed

I have gotten in trouble for a sermon once. 

When I say ‘in trouble’, I don’t mean that someone had a question or wanted to have a conversation about something that they disagreed with. 

When I say ‘in trouble’, I mean that I was pulled aside after the service and given a lecture about how what I preached was dangerous and wrong. 

I have gotten in trouble for a sermon once. And it was a children’s sermon.

Now, what I had said to the kids was that you don’t need permission to do good. You don’t need permission to love someone, or be kind to someone, or to stand up for someone.

And what this particular parent heard was, “You don’t ever need permission to do anything… you can do whatever your want.”

I don’t have any children of my own, but I can understand how that might not be a message that you want your child to hear. Sometimes, it’s important to get permission. And, when it comes to children and their parents, it’s important to be clear about what sorts of things need a parent’s permission and what sorts of things don’t.

So… I stand by the message of that children’s sermon. You do not need permission to do good. You do need permission to do other things. And one of the things that you probably should get permission for is staying in Jerusalem after the Passover festival when your parents are heading home.

Let me back up a little bit.

In today’s reading from Luke, Jesus is twelve years old.

We don’t get many stories about Jesus as a child. The gospels tend to jump from the nativity story—if they have one at all—straight to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry when he’s around thirty years old. 

That’s a big chunk of time to skip. And there are countless theories about what Jesus was doing during that time. There are people who think that he was a carpenter with his dad. There are people who think that he traveled to India to learn the wisdom of Eastern sages. There are people who think any number of other things.

But when it comes to the stories that we have in the Bible, this is the one that we hear about Jesus being a kid.

Every year, his family would go from their home in Nazareth to the temple in Jerusalem for the Passover festival. According to ancient sources, there would have been a huge number of people—millions of Jews—from all over the area in Jerusalem for the Passover. They would made their sacrifices at the temple, celebrate for about a week, and then head home.

And this year, like every other year, when Passover ended, Mary and Joseph joined up with the other travelers heading in the direction of Nazareth and started their journey home. And they assumed that the twelve-year-old Jesus was somewhere in the group.

And, after about a day, they realized that Jesus was… not so much in the group.

So they went back to Jerusalem and looked for him. And, after three days, they found him at the temple… listening to teachers and scholars, and asking questions, and answering their questions. And everyone was amazed at his understanding and his answers.

Everyone was amazed at his understanding and his answers.

It is easy to believe that, in this moment, with Jesus surrounded by teachers and scholars, questioning and answering with the best of them… it is easy to believe that, in this moment, Jesus is special.

And of course Jesus is special. He is the Word become flesh. He is the Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father, through whom all things were made. Of course he is special.

But he is also not the only young person to sit around a group of adults and amaze them. I know that because I have met the young people in this church: the kids who come forward during our Time with Young Worshippers, the young people in our confirmation class, and youth who were part of our Christmas program. 

Week in and week out, I am blessed to see our young people do amazing things.

And it isn’t just our young people.

It’s Malala Yousafzai, who was blogging about her life in Taliban-occupied Pakistan for the BBC; who was shot for her activism; and who went on to found a nonprofit organization, write a book, win a Nobel Peace Prize, and become a tireless advocate for the right to education.

It’s the kids from Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, Florida, who endured unimaginable tragedy. And who responded to that tragedy by organizing rallies, giving interviews to magazines, appearing on television, and becoming tireless advocates for better gun control. And who have done that while making sure to include voices from other, less privileged, communities.

It’s Sophie Cruz, an eight year old American citizen whose parents are undocumented. And who has passed notes to the Pope, spoken to President Obama, and given speeches at rallies in support of Deferred Action for Parents of Americans.

And, so many years ago, it’s Ruby Bridges, being escorted to William Frantz Elementary School by U.S. Marshalls. The first black student at an all-white school in New Orleans.

And it’s so many others. I won’t even try to list names. While people my age (and older) are complaining about the kids being on their phones all the time, and constantly playing Fortnite, and listening to Dear Even Hansen all the time; actual young people—ordinary young people—are changing the world.

Young people are in the temple… listening to teachers and scholars… asking and answering questions… and being amazing.

When Mary and Joseph find Jesus at the temple, they are astonished. And Mary says to Jesus, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”

And Jesus answers her, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

Jesus is no baby meek and mild. He is a soon-to-be-teenager.

“Where did you think I would be?” he asks, “What did you think I would be doing?”

And he’s right. Almost thirteen years earlier an angel had visited Mary and said to her,

You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.

She knew what kind of son she would be raising. Where did she think he would be? What did she think he would be doing?

Every young person who has tried to change the world has been asked that question: why are you treating us like this? Why are you adding to our anxiety? 

And some have faced much worse. Malala was shot. I’ve read the things that have been written about the kids from Parkland. People threatened to kill Ruby Bridges… to her face… every day… while she walked to that elementary school in New Orleans.

“Why are you treating us like this?” people ask, “Why are you adding to our anxiety?”

And we know the answer. If we raise our youth up right…

If we teach the the lessons that the author of Colossians asks us all to learn. Be clothed with compassion and kindness and humility and meekness and patience. Be clothed with love. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly. Teach and admonish with all wisdom. Sing with gratitude.

Let the peace and word of Jesus Christ, son of the Most High, who was once a twelve year old, at the temple, amazing the teachers and scholars, live in you.

If we raise our youth up right… what else do we think they would be doing than making the world a place of greater compassion and mercy and justice and love? If we raise our youth up right… where else do we think they would be than on the front lines of the issues that will affect them for the rest of their lives?

What else would be expect them to do… than be Christ-like?

When Mary and Joseph found Jesus at the temple, they were astonished.

And—the scripture goes on—after Jesus answered them, they did not understand what he said to them.

And—the scripture goes on—after they took him by the hand, and they all went home to Nazareth together, Mary treasured all these things in her heart.

There are going to be times when our youth ask permission for the things they should ask permission for. And there are going to be times when they don’t. And there are going to be times when we think they should have asked permission, but when they really shouldn’t have had to.

There are going to be times when we can give wisdom to our youth. And there are going to be times when those of us who are a little bit older need to clothe ourselves in compassion and kindness and humility and meekness and patience… and listen to the wisdom of our youth. They are, after all, learning much more than we’ll ever know.

And we will have the chance to be amazed at their understanding and their answers; to watch them grow in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor; and and to treasure all of these things in our hearts.

We’ll have the chance to let a child lead the way. Hallelujah. Amen.

The Christmas Story

God loved the world like this:

In the days when Israel was ruled by Rome, God sent an angel to a young woman named Mary, who was engaged to a man named Joseph, and that angel said,

You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.

And when it was time for Mary to have her son, she and Joseph was in the town of Bethlehem. And because there was no room at the inn, they stayed in a stable. And Mary gave birth to the her son. And because they were in a stable, she took that Son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger. And the Son of the Most High was made low.

And in that same region there were shepherds: dirty, and smelly, and hanging out with sheep all the time. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them and said,

Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.

And that angel and a host of angels sang: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

And the shepherds went to Bethlehem, and found a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. And they ran around telling everyone. The lowly telling the world about the Son of the Most High… made low.

And that is how the Word of God, who is with God and who is God, a light in the darkness through whom all things were made, came into the world to be one of us.

God loved the world like this: He made himself low for our sake. He made herself low… for us.

For the last four Sundays, we have been in the season of Advent. We have lit candles for hope and peace and joy and love. We have prepared for Jesus Christ to come into the world.

And now, on Christmas Eve, we stand on the threshold. We wait in holy anticipation for God to enter this world. Not as a conquering supernatural creature, but as a baby. Not in a palace in the capital of an empire, but in a manger in a small town in a backwater province. Not welcomed by kings and potentates, but by shepherds.

And we light a candle for Christ… our light in the darkness.

We know who we are through the stories that we tell. And we tell this story: that God came into the world as one of us, that God came into the world among the poor, and that if we want to find God we look among the least of us.

We know who we are through the stories that we tell. And this is a story that you’ve heard before. You’ve heard it on its own.

You’ve heard it mashed together with other stories in a Christmas pageant. You’ve heard Linus tell it, standing in a spotlight on a stage in a school auditorium, near a sad and small Christmas tree sitting on Schroeder’s little piano.

It’s a story that we hear every year. And we can get so used to it that it can fade into the background. It can become just this story that we tell amid all of the other things that happen during the Christmas season.

A few years ago, in my last job, I was flying home from Biloxi. I had been there for a board meeting or a staff development event or something. And I was at my usual layover in Atlanta or Dallas-Fort Worth. And I had done that thing where you wait for a couple of hours at the gate… and then you get on the plane… and then they discover a problem… and then you get off the plane… and then you go to another gate and wait there.

And I was tired and crabby and I just wanted to go home. And this guy started talking to me. And, somewhere in there he asked me what I did. And most of you know that I was a fundraiser for an organization that helps people living in poverty. So I slipped into fundraiser mode and told him what I did and what my employer did… and I think I stopped just short of asking him for money.

And then he asked me how I liked it. And—because I was tired and crabby and I just wanted to go home—I said something like this: “It’s okay. I get to eat food and live indoors.”

And a guy who was standing a little bit ahead of us in line looked back and said, “So you’re better off than the people you’re serving.”

I had gotten so wrapped up in my life and my work and my stress that I had forgotten why I did it. I was so tired that I had forgotten that there are people who drink so that it’s easier to sleep on the concrete under a bridge. I was so crabby that I had forgotten that there are people who are at the end of their ropes. I wanted to get home so badly that I had forgotten that there were people with no home to go to.

And I know that Christ was among them.

I know that it is Christmas Eve. This is a night of celebration and family and community and love. Christ is coming into the world! As a baby… in a small town in a backwater province… wrapped in cloth and laid in a manger… visited by shepherds.

But I can tell you that Christ has been here all along. He stays out of the way during the day, and sleeps on a bench in Lincoln Park at night, and goes to the Referral Center when he can.

She is sitting in a detention center at the border… and in a refugee camp in Jordan… and in a prison cell in Fort Madison.

They are walking out of their house because their parents didn’t accept them, and they are desperately seeking a community that will welcome them in, and give them a hug, and tell them that they are the precious child of a loving God.

Christ has been here all along. And we meet him in the hungry and the thirsty and the lonely, the naked and the sick and the imprisoned. And we tell this story—about a baby wrapped in cloth and laid in a manger—so that we can remember that.

Christ has been here all along. And we meet him in the hungry and the thirsty and the lonely, the naked and the sick and the imprisoned. Click To Tweet

We know who we are through the stories that we tell. And the Christmas story is about a poor and vulnerable God, who we meet among poor and vulnerable people, and who we serve through love and generosity.

It is, as G.K. Chesterton said, a story “built upon a beautiful and intentional paradox; that the birth of the homeless should be celebrated in every home.”

It can be hard to remember that. It can be hard to remember that when we’re dealing with all of the stresses of our lives, like when we’re in an airport and we’re tired and we’re crabby and we just want to go home.

And it can be hard to remember during the holidays, when we have families to entertain, and parties to attend, and decorations to put up, and presents to buy, and food to cook.

So we light a candle. We light a candle for Christ.

We light a candle for a little baby who was wrapped in cloth and laid in a manger… and for every baby who needs love… which means, for every baby.

We light a candle for a man who ended up on the wrong side of power… and for everyone who is marginalized and threatened and hurt.

We light a candle for a God who loved the world like this: She made herself low for our sake… she became a light in the darkness, for us.

We light a candle… for Christ.

And we don’t just do that this week. We don’t just do that tonight.

Every week, someone carries a light into this sanctuary and places it on these candles on this table. They are symbols of the light of Christ, the light that shines in the darkness and that the darkness cannot overcome, the true light that enlightens everyone.

And every week, someone takes this these symbolic lights out of this sanctuary.

And, it’s true, all of us carry the light of Christ… in our hearts… out into the world.

And, it’s also true, all of us go into the world to look for that light, to look for Jesus in the places where he hangs out today… in the mangers of our world… among the shepherds of our world.

And every week, every day, every hour, we have the chance to bring good news of great joy to all people, to share good will with all of our neighbors, and, through our actions, to praise God.

Every week, every day, every hour, we have the chance to bring good news of great joy to all people, to share good will with all of our neighbors, and, through our actions, to praise God. Click To Tweet

Gloria in excelsis Deo. Glory to God in the highest!

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas, everybody!

I know that things have been a little slow around the blog lately. Part of that is just the busy-ness of my first Advent season as a pastor. Part of that is that I’ve been focused on other extracurricular projects lately. And, while my New Year’s resolutions are almost always doomed to failure, I hope to get back to regular posting soon.

In the meantime, let me leave you with a quote from a few Christmases ago. It’s one of my favorite Chesterton quotes, and a sentiment that I think gets to the core of the Christmas story:

Christmas is built upon a beautiful and intentional paradox; that the birth of the homeless should be celebrated in every home.

From ‘The Thing: Why I am Catholic’

Love

Right after I graduated from seminary, a lot of my friends began their first calls at their first churches. And that meant that, for the first time, they had to preach… every week.

And if you’ve never had to preach a sermon every week, then you might not know that preparing a sermon is a lot of work. You have to read the scripture, and think about it, and maybe do some research on it. You have to come up with stories and examples, which can mean more research. You have to figure out what jokes you’re going to tell and who you’re going to steal them from.

You have to check Facebook and Twitter, do a couple of crossword puzzles, see what’s new on Kickstarter, clean your house, plan dinners for the next couple of weeks. It’s work.

And, eventually, Saturday night rolls around and you’re left staring at a blank page.

Right after I graduated from seminary, a lot of my friends began their first calls at their first churches. And that meant that, for the first time, they had to preach every week. And that meant that on Saturday night there was always at least one person posting on Facebook, “Does anyone have an idea about how to preach on, say, Luke 1:39-55?”

There is always the temptation to wait for inspiration to strike. Which is why, as some of you know, I write my sermons on Mondays. By the end of the day on Monday—by the time of an evening meeting or hanging out with friends—I try to have a sermon done, or a solid first draft, or a good start.

Because “inspiration is for amateurs,” said the painter Chuck Close, “the rest of us show up and get to work.”

A couple of weeks ago, we heard the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptizer. And, in today’s reading, we hear that when Elizabeth was pregnant with John, her relative Mary came to visit. Mary is also pregnant, and John leaps in Elizabeth’s womb, and Elizabeth is filled with the Spirit and proclaims Mary blessed.

And Mary responds with poem that has become famous. It has become a prayer and a song and something that people in churches around the world and across time recite:

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.

“Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

“His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

“He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

“He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

It’s a little bit of a love song to God. And today is the fourth Sunday of Advent, when we light a candle for love.

We light this candle in recognition of the love that God has for this world. And God loves the world in this way: she sent her son into it to live fully and completely as one of us.

We light this candle in recognition of the love that we, like Mary, have for God; to remember that we come together to magnify the Lord who has looked on us with favor.

We light this candle in recognition of the love that we are called to have for each other and for all creation; even though we don’t always love as we should.

We light a candle for love.

And it is easy to think that this love is a feeling… that it’s like inspiration.

And, sometimes, it is. Some of us can remember back to our early days with our spouse or partner and how quickly that feeling of love came up. Some of us can remember back to our youth, and how love—or, at least ‘like like’—lurked around every corner. 

And some of you can remember the first time you held your child in your arms, and the feelings of love that overwhelmed you. I imagine that Zechariah and Elizabeth felt that love when they first saw their son John. And I imagine that Joseph and Mary felt that love when they first saw their son Jesus.

Sometimes, love is a feeling. And it can be an overwhelming feeling. It can turn us into heroes and fools. We do amazing things—and, sometimes, incredibly stupid things—for love.

But love is more than a feeling. Love is an action.

Now, don’t get me wrong, how we feel matters… a little bit. We can love and do it badly. We can love and make mistakes.

But love is still an action. Love is lived out. Love is giving food to someone who is hungry and drink to someone who is thirsty and clothing to someone who is naked; it is welcoming the stranger and caring for the sick and visiting the prisoner. Love is patience and kindness and forbearance and belief and hope and endurance.

Love is action, whether we’re feeling it or not.

And the fact is that love can be hard. It can be hard to love our families and our friends. That’s true in the everydayness of the year. It’s especially true around the holidays.

Right now, we are surrounded by images and movies showing meticulously decorated houses and home-cooked gourmet meals that meet every expectation of diet and taste. We are busily picking out gifts that say, “I spent enough to show that I care, but not so much that you, the recipient, feel bad about what you’re about to give me.”

We measure ourselves against impossible standards of togetherness. And, sometimes, get a little resentful towards all those people who aren’t helping us meet the Hallmark ideal.

It can be hard to love our families and our friends. But it can be even harder to love all of those people who we don’t know; who we’ve never met; who we’ve only seen out of the corner of our eye, if at all.

We can see that in our rhetoric around things like poverty and immigration. A simple phrase like ‘undeserving poor’ or ‘illegal immigrant’ can show us how hard it can be to love our neighbors who are also strangers, whether they are walking into the Referral Center, or waiting in line at an immigration checkpoint in Tijuana, or sitting in a refugee camp in the Middle East.

It can be hard to love our families and our friends. It can be even harder to love all of those people who we don’t know. It can be almost impossible to love our enemies.

Love can be hard.

And when something is hard, it can be easy to set it aside. It can be easy to say, “I don’t have what it takes to love my family and friends right now. I don’t have what it takes to love those strangers right now. I don’t have what it takes to love my enemies right now.”

It can be easy to set the hard things aside and wait for inspiration to strike.

But inspiration is for amateurs. Professionals show up and get to work. And we are Christians. And, as Christians, we are called to be professionals at love. We are called to show up and get to work.

And that’s why it is so important that love isn’t just a feeling. That’s why it’s so important that love is action, whether we’re feeling it or not.

Because, even if we’re not feeling it… we can do it.

When that painter, Chuck Close, said that inspiration is for amateurs, what he meant was this. Sometimes, when you are painting—or playing an instrument or writing a sermon—you don’t have anything.

And so you take a color and you paint a line. Or you play a few notes. Or you write, “Right after I graduated from seminary, a lot of my friends began their first calls at their first churches. And that meant that, for the first time, they had to preach… every week.”

And then you paint another line and another and another. Or you play another note or a phrase or a snippet of melody. Or you write a few more words, and then a sentence, and then a paragraph.

And, gradually, something comes out of the work. And, gradually, you start to feel the thing coming out of the work.

Being inspired just means getting filled with the spirit. And by doing the work, we make room for the spirit to get in the mix. And, before too long, we are inspired to do the thing we were already doing.

If you want to love… go out and love. If you want to be filled with the spirit of love… go out and love.

Love can be hard. We do not love as we should. I am not always good at love.

So I light a candle.

I light a candle as a reminder that I don’t have to feel love to give love.

I light a candle as a reminder that the work of loving is what makes room for the spirit of love.

I light a candle as a little light in the darkness that I can follow in love. A little light in the darkness that tells me that I can love my way into… well, that I can love my way into greater love.

I light a candle to say, let my soul magnify the Lord, let my spirit rejoice, and let God, in her mercy, make me an instrument of her love.

I light a candle… for love.

Bloomberg: Verdict Is In: Food Stamps Put Poor Kids on Path to Success

One of the things that compelled me to write Radical Charity is that I kept seeing two narratives about charity. On the one hand, there were the charity skeptics, arguing that charity and welfare hurt their recipients. These skeptics argue that doing for others what they could (or should) do for themselves erodes work ethics, fosters a sense of entitlement, and contributes to the dependency of the people who get assistance. On the other hand, there were researchers in a variety of fields studying the actual effects of charitable giving and welfare programs. And these researchers were discovering that when people are struggling, giving them what they need works.

The charity skeptics already have a big platform, and their ideas are being implemented by churches, nonprofit organizations, and governments. So I started collecting stories about charitable programs that worked. I didn’t want those stories to be buried in academic papers while charity skeptics’ arguments were in popular books.

And here’s another one. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, often referred to by its old name: food stamps) really does help people, and has an especially positive effect on children up to age five.

You can read the article at Bloomberg here. I usually try to avoid linking to articles behind pay walls, but this pay wall is pretty soft. There’s just an article limit.

Read the whole thing. And, if you can, read the original article. But the summary is simple: access to nutritional programs as an adult leads to better health, higher education, and lower reliance on benefit programs as an adult. Investments in low-income children—and that means investments in low-income families—make lives better. Food stamps work.

The Big Peace

Today is the second Sunday of Advent. And today, we hear a part of a story that we don’t hear very often.

There was this priest, Zechariah, and his wife, Elizabeth. They were righteous before the Lord. And, like so many people in the Bible, they were old and they were childless.

And, one day, an angel appeared before Zechariah and said to him, “Elizabeth will bear a son and you will name him John… and he will prepare the people for the Lord.”

And, like so many people in the Bible who are old and childless, when they hear that they will have a child, Zechariah said, “That… seems unlikely.” And the angel struck him mute. And Elizabeth conceived.

Later, Elizabeth bore a son. They took him to be circumcised, and their friends and family wanted to name him Zechariah, after his father. Elizabeth said, “No. His name is John.” And, like so many people do when a woman contradicts the crowd, they say, “Let’s check with your husband.”

So they hand Zechariah a tablet, and he writes, “His name is John.” And right at that moment, his tongue is freed and he is able to speak again.

And he does what all new dads do when they are able to speak to their newborn son for the first time: he prophesies.

He praises God. And he says that God has remembered her covenant with Abraham, and raised up a savior from the house of David, who will rescue God’s people from the hands of their enemies.

And he says to John, his son, “You will be a prophet. You will go before the Lord and prepare his ways. You will give knowledge of salvation to God’s people by the forgiveness of their sins.”

And he says, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Dawn will break… there will be light for those who live in darkness… to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Today is the second Sunday of Advent. Today, we light a candle—a light in the darkness to guide our feet—for peace. And God knows that we need it. We do not have peace.

Peace is a hard thing to talk about. It’s a word that has many meanings.

On the one hand, there is the little peace: the absence of conflict. Or, sometimes, even less. “Peace is not the absence of conflict,” said Ronald Reagan, “but the ability to cope with conflict by peaceful means.”

And God knows that we need that little peace. We do not have it.

Some of the conflicts that we face, and that we cannot resolve, are huge. There is a generation in America that only knows a nation at war. There are people in high school—there are people in this sanctuary—who are younger than the war in Afghanistan.

And the truth is that most of us only know a nation at war in one way or another. In its two hundred forty-two year history, the United States has only been not-at-war for about seventeen years. There are people about to graduate from high school who have lived longer on this earth than our nation has lived in relative peace.

We can all name some of the famous wars: the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Spanish American War, the Civil War, two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. But there have been so many others: against Native peoples and in far-off lands. Official and unofficial. Hot and cold.

And it isn’t just us. War is a living reality for countless people around the world. There are big wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and Mexico and Syria and Yemen. And there are dozens of other wars and conflicts and skirmishes and clashes that don’t make the news.

And it isn’t just war. Communities across our nation and around the world face police brutality, mass shootings, gang wars, and other forms of violence. For too many of us—which is to say, for any of us—violence is part of life.

God knows we need that little peace; that absence of conflict. We do not have it.

Some of those conflicts of huge. But some of them are small and intimate.

Some of us are in conflict with our families: our spouses or partners, our parents or children, our siblings or cousins or nieces or nephews.

Some of us are in conflict with someone at work: a supervisor or an employee, a client or a vendor, a coworker.

Some of us are in conflict with a friend, or someone who we go to church with, or a complete stranger who blocked the aisle with the grocery cart while looking at spices.

Some of us are in conflict with ourselves. Some of us have inventories of our faults—real or imagined—and fight against ourselves mercilessly.

And sometimes those conflicts turn to physical violence. And sometimes they are verbally or emotionally violent. And sometimes they just just are.

God knows we need that little peace; that absence of conflict. We do not have it.

But the absence of conflict is just a little peace; it’s an imitation peace.

“Peace is not just the absence of conflict,” said the Rev. Dr. King, “it is the presence of justice.”

And he went on. He recalled a conversation with a man who was upset about… ‘the bus situation’.

“Yes, there is more tension now,” King said, “but even if we didn’t have this tension, we still wouldn’t have real peace.”

“If Black folk accepted their place,” he said, “their place of exploitation and injustice, there would be peace. But it would be obnoxious peace of stagnant complacency and deadening passivity.”

“I do not want a peace,” he said, “if that means that I have to accept second class citizenship; or keep my mouth shut in the midst of injustice and evil; or be well-adjusted to a deadening status quo; or be willing to be exploited economically, dominated politically, humiliated, and segregated.”

“Peace is not just the absence of conflict,” he said, “it is the presence of justice.”

And he was right. The absence of conflict is a little peace; it’s an imitation peace. Real peace comes when there is also justice. And there is not enough justice. And it is often the same people who face violence who are denied their share of justice.

God knows that we need the little peace; the imitation peace. We do not have it.

And God knows that we need the big peace; the real peace that comes alongside the presence of justice. We do not have it.

But we do have Zechariah—a priest serving in a land occupied by an empire—prophesying to his son.

“You, my child, will be a prophet of the Most High. You will go before the Lord to prepare his ways. You will give knowledge of salvation to his people. And by the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

His name is John. And he will become John the Baptizer, who proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

He will become John the Baptizer, who will proclaim the good news to the people. He will become John the Baptizer, who will baptize the Messiah, our Lord, Jesus the Christ.

Think about that for just a minute.

It is tempting to imagine that peace—whether it’s the little imitation peace as the absence of conflict, or the big real peace as the presence of justice—is a big systemic thing that is… out there. And that’s a little bit true. Peace is a big systemic thing. And reaching it will take big systemic steps like the tender mercy of God and the dawn from on high.

But it is also true that big systemic things have their roots in individual acts of every day life. It is true that when I—or you, or anyone—stand up for peace and against not-peace, there ends up being a little more peace in the world.

John was not the Messiah. He baptized people. He told them to repent. He told people who had extra to share with those who didn’t have enough. He told tax collectors to only collect the amount they were supposed to. He told soldiers not to extort money.

I can do that. You can do that. Anyone can do that.

When we see injustice, we can say, “There is injustice.” And we can call people to repent and turn towards the God who is just.

When we see violence, we can say, “There is violence.” And we can call people to repent and turn towards the God who is love.

When we see not-peace, we can say, “There is not-peace.” And we can call people to repent and turn towards the Prince of Peace.

John did that. And so I can do that, and you can do that, and anyone can do that.

And I know that’s hard. I know that’s scary. I know that I fail at it.

I know that I don’t like conflict. And I know that, among my many privileges, is the privilege to avoid conflict. And I know that sometimes—often, maybe even usually—my desire to avoid conflict is so much greater than my desire to work for peace.

I know that I stay silent when I should speak. I know that I stay still when I should act.

So I light a candle.

I light a candle as a light in the darkness.

I light a candle to remind myself that there is always a light in the darkness, a dawn from on high, a light that can guide my feet into the way of peace.

I light a candle to remind myself that I—and you, and everyone—am called to be the light of the world, preparing the way of the Lord, and calling others to the big peace that comes alongside the presence of justice.

I light a candle… for peace.

World-Ending Hope

It is the first Sunday of Advent.

Advent is a strange season. On the one hand, we’re looking forward to Christmas. In the church, we decorate the building, we make cookies for people who can’t be with us regularly, we prepare for the children’s Christmas program, we sing a handful of carols, and we give to the Referral Center. We are getting ready for the birth of our savior… in a stable… two thousand years ago.

And, of course, outside of the church, we’re really looking forward to Christmas. People put up decorations everywhere: wreaths on city lampposts, lights on roofs, trees in homes, and window displays in stores. We wish each other a Merry Christmas, or—if we’re respectful of the many other holidays at this time of year—Happy Holidays. A Christmas Story plays on the TV. All I Want for Christmas is You and Last Christmas play on a loop on the radio.

On the other hand, though, we’re looking forward to Christ’s return. Not as a baby in a stable in Bethlehem, but as a king… and a judge… and a redeemer. For the days are surely coming when God will keep her promise to the world, when a righteous branch will spring up, and when there will be justice and righteousness in the land.

And we look to the past and to the future… in hope.

We are good mainline Protestants. And one of the things about good mainline Protestants is our relationship with time.

On the one hand, we remember the past. We remember the days when everything was better. When the sanctuary was full. When the Sunday School rooms were bursting at the seams. When the committees were fully staffed and the money was rolling in and no one had anything to do but go to church on Sunday morning and participate in activities on Wednesday nights.

And, to be fair, we probably misremember the past. But we misremember it fondly.

On the other hand, we work in the present. We do the work of justice and righteousness and mercy by giving to charity, and going on mission trips, and leaving non-perishable food items under the coatrack in the narthex, and putting gloves and hats under the little Christmas tree, and calling our congress-critters on a host of issues.

We even think about the future in concrete terms, in terms of budgets and committee assignments and maybe a program or two. We talk about a future that is a lot like today.

We don’t usually talk about the end of things.

There are churches that do. There are churches that talk about the last days and how we are living in them. There are churches that talk about raptures and antichrists and tribulations. There are churches who will tell you that Jesus is coming back this year, or next year, or by the end of the decade for sure.

But we usually don’t.

So today’s reading from Luke can be a little uncomfortable for us. God knows it’s a little uncomfortable for me.

In today’s reading, we get a little slice of an extended monologue… where Jesus is very definitely talking about the end of things.

He talks about the people who will come and claim to be the Messiah, and how they we lead people astray, and how we shouldn’t follow them.

He talks about wars and insurrections and nation rising against nation. He talks about earthquakes and famines and plagues; and dreadful portents and great signs; and persecutions and armies and the destruction of Jerusalem.

And he doesn’t say this, but still: dogs and cats… living together… mass hysteria!

This kind of talk can be uncomfortable for us. But if we’re going to talk about hope, we have to talk about it. We have to talk about the end of things.

Because hope for me—a straight white cis-gendered able-bodied neuro-typical well-educated English-speaking professional middle class man between the ages of 18 and 49 who lives in the United States of America—is one thing.

And hope for some other people… is different.

Earlier in the story—before he started talking about the end of things—Jesus was teaching near the Temple.

And he said, “Beware of the scribes. They like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect when they’re out and about, and to have the best seats in synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. But they devour widows’ houses, and they say long prayers just to show off how religious they are. They will have the greater condemnation.”

And then he saw rich people putting their offerings in the plate. And he saw a widow drop in her two copper coins. And he said, “She’s put in more than all of them. They gave a little bit of their abundance. She gave her whole life.”

And then he heard some people talking about the beauty of the Temple, and he started talking about the end of things.

Because Jesus knows his world. He knows that widow has no power. He knows that she cannot hope that the next Emperor will propose a set of policies that are better for poor widows, because Emperors don’t do that sort of thing. He knows that she cannot hope for a slightly better job, because widows don’t get good paying jobs.

He knows that all she can hope for is for the way that the world works to change. All she can hope for is the end of the world as she—and as those scribes—know it. For the coming of the Son of Man. For her redemption to draw near.

There are people in this world who are that widow, whose homes are being devoured, who have nothing more than two copper coins. There are people who live in countries and neighborhoods where violence is rampant. There are people who do not have enough food, or adequate housing, or access to clean water.

There are people who will walk twenty-six hundred miles from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, to Tijuana, Mexico, in the hope—in the HOPE—of coming to the United States and no longer living in one of the poorest and deadliest cities in the world.

I cannot imagine what that hope is like. I cannot imagine what it means to walk twenty-six hundred miles, through dangerous terrain, with nothing more than hope.

But I can tell you that that hope is a world-ending hope. Because someone who is hoping with that hope is hoping for such a radical change in their life, for such a tremendous alteration to their circumstances, that it can only be described as the END. OF. THEIR. WORLD.

And there are people who are still living in San Pedro Sula—or somewhere else—in fear and hunger and poverty and worry.

And some of them hoping for change. And not just for change, but for change that can only be described as the end of the world.

But, of course… there’s the other side to that. When the widow’s world ends, so does the scribes’. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.

I get it.

I’ve only been with you for… not quite a year. So you don’t know this about me yet, but there are a lot of parts of my life where I don’t really do change. I’m trying to get better at that. But…

Before this November, I had the same goatee since my sophomore year in college.

Before last year, I had bought the same brand and design of tennis shoes three or four times. And it was only that few because they discontinued the design I was buying before that.

Mariah and I were talking recently, and she said that she didn’t realize, when she suggested a short hair cut, that I would just have this hair cut for the rest of my life.

I’m trying to get better. But there are a lot of parts of my life where I don’t really do change.

So you can imagine what it’s like when I think about big changes; about world-ending changes.

I am a firm believer that we need radical change in this world. I believe that we could make sure that everyone on this planet had enough to eat and to drink, and a safe place to live, and a good education, and a fulfilling life. And I believe that we could do all of that while protecting our forests and our waterways and our glaciers; and our red pandas and our black rhinos, and the little creepy crawly things. And I believe all of that with a burning belief.

And I know that all of that would require huge changes in my life. And I do not want to change.

So I get it. A little bit.

I get wanting to keep things the way they have been And I get wanting to react to change—and, especially to world-ending change—with yelling and screaming and hateful invective. I get wanting to react to change—and, especially to world-ending change—with armies and tear gas and rubber bullets.

I might not get it completely. But I get it… a little bit.

I am a scribe. I’ve got my long robe. I like being greeted with honor. I like the good seats. I have been known to say long prayers. I do not want my world to end. Even if the world to come would be better.

So I light a candle.

I light a candle in the hope that my world will change, and that I will change with it.

I light a candle in the hope that redemption will come for the widows of the world, and that, somehow, it will come for me, too.

I light a candle in the hope that I will not be afraid; that I will not faint.

I light a candle in the hope that I will have the strength to stand before the Son of Man.

I light a candle… in hope.

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